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When sharing isn’t caring

Gervase Markham challenges our Internet behaviour

Gervase Markham

Figure Image
photo: iStock

Sharing – who could be against that?

Or, in today’s online world, who could even avoid it? Anyone using the web will have noticed that every article sports multiple ways of letting your contacts know what a great read it was. Twitter uses ‘retweeting’; on Facebook it’s ‘liking’; on Pinterest it’s ‘pinning’. We wander through the virtual world, scattering reproductions of what we encounter to left and right. These sharing mechanisms are a big part of why they call it social media.

But it’s very possible to share from bad motives, or to share with bad effects. Beware in particular of the following five evils:

1. Attacking people

Social media is the modern gathering point of the pitchfork-wielding mob, with Twitter being a particularly regular venue. Examples can be multiplied of people being chased out of the jobs, homes and lives by a torrent of abuse or ridicule from hordes of strangers who take up one or two critical voices and amplify them into a scream.

Due to his expressed support for traditional marriage, Brendan Eich was hounded from his job as CEO of Mozilla after nine days by an online gang, even as those on both sides of the issue inside the Mozilla project called for calm reflection. A single poorly-judged tweet from Justine Sacco, a PR director, caused her to lose her job and move from New York to Ethiopia.1 The Twittersphere took pleasure in her impending misery as she flew across Africa, oblivious to the growing whirlwind. Ironically, the man who started that storm, magazine editor Sam Biddle, ended up under assault in a very similar way a year later, over a tweet about bullying.2

I’m sure no Christian would intentionally want to achieve such ends, but it’s very easy to become a small cog in that large machine, out of a desire to be part of the group, part of the fun, to be ‘in’ rather than ‘out’. Think very hard before being party to the public shaming of someone you don’t know. God says those who have truly sinned will see justice eventually; that process rarely needs help from you.

‘Whoever derides their neighbour has no sense, but the one who has understanding holds their tongue’ (Proverbs 11.12).

2. Spreading lies

‘A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.’

The first search hit for the above quote attributes it to Mark Twain, the second to Winston Churchill.3 And this neatly illustrates the accuracy problem. Many items shared on social media are designed to shock, to cause outrage, or to confirm our political views or our opinions of others. Sharing such things with like-minded friends shows them we are on the side of good (this phenomenon now has a name – ‘virtue signalling’). But for that reason this is also the content we are least suspicious of. How can it be wrong? I agree with it!

However, it turns out that much or most of it is, on closer examination, misleading, partly wrong or entirely false. A recent example was a montage of two photos of the House of Commons – a near-empty house purportedly discussing welfare cuts, and a full one discussing a pay rise for MPs.4 Except the captions were (effectively) lies. This happens in Christian circles too; a photo captioned as Christians burned alive by Muslims in Nigeria turned out to be the aftermath of a gas tanker explosion in the Congo.5

Who has time to do fact checking? Well, if you don’t, then maybe you don’t have time to share it either. If you must share, do not suspend your critical faculties when sharing anything, particularly that which confirms your pre-existing opinions (‘Repost this if you agree!’). We are called to be people of truth.

‘The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him’ (Proverbs 18.17).

3. Promoting sin

Sin can be entertaining. In fact, the world often finds it so. And, to our shame, sometimes so do we. Those Ten Sassy Ways To Dump Your Boyfriend By Text may be world-class putdowns, but is this behaviour to be promoted? You’ve just spent five minutes playing Peach, or Celebrity Bottom?, but you should not assuage your nagging guilt at doing so by trying to make sure others share in it.

Most viral content will fit the world’s prevailing social and cultural narratives, whose identification of what is valuable is utterly skewed. And the only reason it appeals to us must be that we have let our values be skewed at the same angle.

Exercise discernment in both what you read and what you share. A good rule of thumb: ‘Would I be happy to share this with my pastor?’

‘The discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly’ (Proverbs 15.14).

4. Wasting time

Even if the subject matter shared is not actively glorifying sin, it can be encouraging sin in the reader by pushing them to waste their God-given time. We should be keen to make the best use of our short life in bringing in God’s kingdom here on earth. Do you really have time for 25 Reasons You Should Never Visit Greece or 19 Grooming Tips Every Guy Needs To Know? The website Buzzfeed is the malevolent Shelob at the centre of a twisty web of ‘listicles’, which can sap your attention for far longer than you would ever spend in the Bible. Here’s a principle: if the title of an article starts with a number, it’s not going to be worth reading.

There is, of course, a wonderful place for relaxation and leisure in God’s world. But viral content is the junk food of recreation. It’s mass-produced in enormous quantities, cheap and satisfies briefly, yet an hour after consuming it you’ve forgotten what it was like and are just as hungry as you were before. Learn to recognise and avoid ‘click-bait’ – articles written not to inform or bless, but to generate advertising impressions.

‘All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty’ (Proverbs 14.23).

5. Avoiding action

‘They are voting to entirely legalise abortion tomorrow!’– ‘I know, it’s terrible!’ – ‘So what have you done about it?’ – ‘Well, I clicked “Like” on the campaign page on Facebook, and then shared it with all my friends, so they could click “Like” too.’

Clicktivism is slacktivism, not activism. In the age of social media, getting 50,000 signed up to some online cause or other is easy, and disregarding the resulting roll of virtual paper is just as easy. But there is a real negative effect in the self-satisfied feeling of thinking you’ve actually done something, when in fact you haven’t. This is a manifestation of sloth – a desire for glory later without hard work now.

If you actually care about an issue, do something about it that takes time. Pray for at least five minutes – on the same subject. Write a letter, using an actual pen. Find out who would be a good person to call, and call them. Armchair outrage is impotent. Positive kingdom change in the world is not ‘click and collect’.

‘Sluggards do not plough in season; so at harvest time they look but find nothing’ (Proverbs 20.4).

So why are you sharing?

Are you being careful to make sure you are being a positive blessing to others, or are your motives more about blessing yourself? The gospel call to love our neighbour extends to what we put in front of their eyes.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—share only such things. And of those few, even those in moderation.

Gervase Markham lives in Darnall, Sheffield with his wife and three small boys, and is a member of The Crowded House church. You can reach him at gerv@gerv.net

This article may be reproduced and modified under the Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0 International licence . Contact the author for an electronic copy.


1 http://nyti.ms/1F1nA5B

2 http://gawker.com/1653022326

3 It was actually said by Charles Spurgeon. http://freakonomics.com/2011/04/07/ quotes-uncovered-how-lies-travel/

4 http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2014/11/ the-menace-of-memes-how-pictures-can-paint-a-thousand-lies/

5 http://www.loonwatch.com/2011/10/fake-nigerian-christians-burnt-alive-photo-resurfaces-on-facebook/